Library branch must be closed St. Paul Street: Community's fears understood, but can be overcome if trust is restored.

September 18, 1997

SIGHS OF RELIEF certainly seemed appropriate after the decision Tuesday that the Enoch Pratt Free Library may close its St. Paul Street branch. Although -- after eight hours of testimony in Baltimore City Circuit Court -- louder expressions, even by librarians, might have been excused.

Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan was patient. But his ruling was based on what was apparent before the plaintiffs began their long argument. Pratt administrators have the authority to make decisions about buildings, equipment, books and personnel based on their budget. A budget cut led to the decision to close the St. Paul Street and Morrell Park branches.

Pratt Director Carla D. Hayden considered the alternatives and decided that was the best way to deal with a reduction in the city of Baltimore's annual allocation to the library. True, branch closings are also part of a long-range plan approved by the Pratt board of directors. But that strategy has not been implemented.

Charles Village residents who sought to keep the St. Paul branch open argued the master plan was conceived without adequate public input. But that plan didn't prompt the branch-closing decision; the city's budget cut did. The friends of the St. Paul branch can take some comfort in knowing their lawsuit produced a more significant ruling for library patrons.

The argument that closing the branches was a board decision enabled the court to rule separately on the board's contention that the library is a private entity exempted from open-meetings law. All the Pratt's buildings are owned by the city and more than 90 percent of its operating budget comes from public funds. Judge Kaplan ruled the library is a public facility and that its board must open its meetings.

That should end the debate. The Pratt board can show its good faith by scheduling some of its meetings, typically held at lunch, during evening hours that would accommodate more of the working public. Other steps are needed to restore trust in the library's leadership among patrons who fought for the St. Paul branch.

Even those who dislike the master plan's proposal of four regional super-branches want to see some library improvements. Better service is needed in neighborhoods that have never had a branch. Technological advances must be used to make library materials more accessible. But greater public support won't come if those who believe in the Pratt don't unite.

Pub Date: 9/18/97

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